Wednesday, July 6, 2011

On Being Mentored-First Sentences

Today we'll focus on first sentence components/learning from master writers.

Sometimes I get trapped in the I don't know what I don't know syndrome.

I've attended editing classes, read books on editing, and even had critique groups tell me what's wrong with my work. 

I've opened my WIP document, stared at the computer screen/paper and thought...what's wrong?  I couldn't see.

And then I realized my problem wasn't determining what was wrong with my work; rather, I needed to know what was right with master author/writer's works. What makes their product good?

I decided to look at many components of their writing in future posts. Today I will address: First Sentences.



Let's take a look at a few first sentences from well-know works:

1. "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a good wife."  Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

You may look at this sentence in a different light depending on whether you've read Pride and Prejudice or not. Either way, please dialogue with me through the comment section. I'm learning with you.



A good first sentence should lead you to ask questions. What question does this first sentence lead you to ask? 


Here are some ideas: What does the wealthy man look like?  Who are the candidates for his wife?  Why did the author use the word "want" instead of "need"?  What other questions could you ask or hope to answer while reading the book based on this first sentence?


A good first sentences introduces the main character:
Quite clearly, the main character is not the single man in possession of a great fortune, because a main character would never say such a sentence. Rather the main character must be the one who hopefully ends up as his wife.


A good first sentence provides a tantalizing taste of the story.
What can you surmise about the book?  Duh, it must be a romance novel. The single, rich guy realizes he needs to lavish his great wealth on the woman who will be his wife. Secondly, the story must be from the point of view of the perfect woman who supposedly will fill the great need of this single, rich guy.  The initial conclusions can be wrong, but that's OK. A story is more exciting when we have to switch gears.



A good first sentence provides hints to setting.
Without a specific word about the setting spoken, I surmise the story is historical.  People simply don't talk that way today.  I'd guess Victorian period simply by the word choice and importance placed on the mentioned cultural expectations.


A good first sentence entices.
I can't set this book down after reading this first sentence.  Does he find a wife? Is she a Cinderella in need of his wealth? How do they meet?  (I did end up reading this book:) )


Let's try another....

2.  "As I walk'd through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place, where was a Den; and I laid me down in that place to sleep: and as I slept I dreamed a dream." Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan


A good first sentence should lead you to ask questions.
Why did a den catch the narrator's attention? Most dens would produce anxiety. Is there a wild bear, a ferocious raccoon, a stinky skunk hidden in the den? Why did the narrator feel comfortable enough to sleep near the den? What did the narrator dream about? 

A good first sentences introduces the main character:
The main character narrates this story. I don't know at this point if he/she is male or female but I do know they like to walk in nature and feel comfortable sleeping in natural settings.

A good first sentence provides a tantalizing taste of the story.
The story probably centers around the narrator's dream, this should include unusual characters and unusual settings. 

A good first sentence provides hints to setting.
The wording leads me to think the setting originates in the period of Enlightenment (hence the dream). Probably will be philosophical in nature, yet inviting due to the dream setting.


A good first sentence entices.
I'd like to know why the narrator could sleep by a den. Was the narrator tired, burdened, overworked, sad? Why was the narrator sleepy? What did the narrator dream? Did he dream give an answer, direction, hope?  I must read this book.  (Actually, I have, several times!)


Here is the last sentence we'll look at:


3.  "Once there was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it." The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis


A good first sentence should lead you to ask questions.
What did Eustace do to almost deserve his name? What trouble did he do after the first page? Did he stay a trouble maker? What effect will his trouble making have on the story? Is this an adventure story?


A good first sentences introduces the main character:
Eustace is a boy. He causes mischief. Others don't like him. He might be an only child.


A good first sentence provides a tantalizing taste of the story.
I'd really like to know what Eustace did and what he will do next. I think h'ill make me laugh and yet cause me to feel sorry for him... at points. There'll probably be great adventures.


A good first sentence provides hints to setting
The character's name leads me to think this is an English story. It takes place somewhere where children live. Perhaps he is from a large family, or in a place where other children are somehow involved and who think he's deserving of such a name.


A good first sentence entices.
I'd like to know what Eustace did. What will come of the antics he creates? This sounds like a fun, adventuresome story. I'd like to read this book to find out, (and I did!)


Here is one for you to try.  This is from a well known nonfiction book:


4.  "In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth."  Genesis 1:1 by God


A good first sentence should lead you to ask questions.
A good first sentences introduces the main character (person):
A good first sentence provides a tantalizing taste of the story.
A good first sentence provides hints to setting
A good first sentence entices.


Answer as many as you can, or answer the same questions about the first sentence of your WIP.


Let's dialogue...

17 comments:

Wendy Paine Miller said...

I have to admit, God's is my favorite. ;)

I adore first sentences. I often hang out in the bookstore flipping through books just to see if the first sentence grabs me.
~ Wendy

Mary Vee said...

Me too, Wendy. My daughter and I went through B & N recently checking out first sentences only. We laughed and were actually surprised at what grabbed our attention. Two of those books came home with us:)

Miss Good on Paper said...

I can't even tell you how excited I am about this post. You are doing what I preach to my students all the time--reading like a writer. By learning from other authors, you can find what works and doesn't work for you and your WIP. Books are sometimes the best teachers out there.

I'm a big fan of first lines, too. They are essential! You picked some good examples here. In my new author interview series I've been asking writers what their favorite first line is, as well. The results are so interesting. Thanks and keep it up!

-Miss GOP
www.thewritingapprentice.com

Mary Vee said...

Thank you, Miss GOP. So glad you stoppped by today:)

Tracy Krauss said...

It reminds me of something I heard once about how bank tellers get to know counterfeit money - not by studying fakes, but by studying the real thing. Then when fake comes along, they'll know. I suppose it is the same with writing.
It was interesting to note that all your examples were from the classics. I have heard some debate recently about how styles have changed, but we can still learn from the masters that have gone before.
www.tracykraussexpressionexpress.com

Mary Vee said...

Tracy,
I wanted to pick the books the majority of people would think would have a "master writer" for the author. Seemed logical the classics would win.
I agree, styles have changed, but there seems to be some mighty fine writing in the old style for us trendys to learn.

Beth K. Vogt said...

Loved this post. I appreciate how you break something down so we don't just know it--we see it.

Jeanne T said...

This was a great post! I've been waiting for it all week, because I know I have lots to learn about first sentences! I'm leaving this blog satisfied. :) I too appreciated how you broke down the necessary elements of first sentences of classics and showed us how it all worked. Thanks so much!

And, I agree with Wendy--God's is my favorite!

Mary Vee said...

Thanks for stopping by Beth and Jeanne.
Here is an interesting thought for you...the Bible is the only book that never needed editing. The Author wrote it perfect the first time. :)

Julia M. Reffner said...

Great post, Mary. I have never heard a literary analysis of why the Bible starts with a great first line so that was kind of neat and some of the other works you mentioned are among my favorites. Although I must admit I haven't had the pleasure of reading Pilgrim's Progress yet.

Mary Vee said...

Well, Julie, Yah gotta put that one on your list. Especially get the younger versions for any of your kiddos when they reach third grade and up. They will love the story, and you'll love spending the time with them pointing out all the cool things about the Christian journey.

culinarystorm said...

This reminds of another enticing first line- "Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice." from Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred years of Solitude

Anonymous said...

Bible a non fiction book? Give me a break... Seriously.

Dark_Word said...

One thing:

A good first sentence provides hints to setting.
Without a specific word about the setting spoken, I surmise the story is historical. People simply don't talk that way today. I'd guess Victorian period simply by the word choice and importance placed on the mentioned cultural expectations.

At some point, it was very 'modern' and 'now'.

Molly Rider said...

I love pulling out first sentences and examining them. The opening to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader makes me smile, every time! Thank you for this blog post! Great stuff.

Lori said...

A good first sentence sets tone. From the Pride and Prejudice example, you get the playful tone of the narrator through which the reader will meet all the characters. The tone matches the pov on that whole marriage sitch according to Elizabeth Bennet, too. Who--if you don't like her, you're not going to like the book.

BellaVida said...

I love this post. I'm trying hard to be a good hooker in the screenplay I'm writing.

Bella Vida by Letty
Have a fabulous day.